Defining Distance Learning

“The era of individual contribution has just begun and we don’t even have a vocabulary suited to discuss the issue let alone formulate decisions and then carry them out” (Cross, 2003).

I know I will be dating myself, but my first encounter with distance learning was when my father took a correspondence photography course in the 1970s. He would get a packet of information, follow the instructions, set up the equipment, take the pictures, have the pictures developed, and then send everything in to be graded/reviewed. Then he would wait … and wait … and wait! It had to travel back to the school, be evaluated by the teacher, and sent back with notes and a new packet for the next step in his photography journey. My next encounter would be in the 1990s using a dial up modem for an “online” program I was completing. All the materials were sent to me by (what we now call) snail mail. I had to dial into the school’s computer system to hand in my completed assignments. I would then get an email with notes, corrections, and my grades. There was still very little interaction with the teacher and absolutely none with other students. In 2005, I decided to complete my Master’s degree through Walden University, and I enjoyed the vast differences between the 70s, 90s and 2000s. There was interaction with other people, not all my assignments were for me to just hand in to the teacher, the feedback from other students was enlightening, and there was a little more of a collaborative atmosphere. I am now completing a second Master’s degree through Walden University and enjoying this experience even more as the use of technology has increased yet again.

As you can see, the changes over the years have altered my definition over time from a self-study course to a much more collaborative approach. If you look at the U. S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement definition, it states distance learning is “the application of telecommunications and electronic devices which enable students and learners to receive instruction that originates from some distant location” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012, pp. 34-35). Now, if you look back at my examples, the first scenario would no longer fall under this definition as two of the key components seem to be telecommunications and electronic devices. There was no use of any type of technology; it was simply the United States Postal Service doing most of the work. Yet, doesn’t it still count as a learning activity? My belief is (and has always been) that even without the use of technology learning can take place at a distance. I watched it in action. Was it the best type of teaching? Did my father learn as well as he could have if a teacher had been more available? Not necessarily, but it is still a teaching-learning situation. We, as a society, are now so used to technology infiltrating our entire lives that we do not always see the “old ways” as a viable solution. We want our information now!

I am now in a unique position of being both a teacher in an online K-12 school and a student in an online Master’s program. I get to see both sides of the distance learning coin. While the methods of transmitting information have changed drastically, I feel the basic premise of student and teacher being in two separate places is the first component of any type of distance learning. There are still places in the world that rely on the regular postal system and correspondence courses. “Rice (2006) suggested that the effectiveness of distance education has more to do with who is teaching, who is learning, and how that learning is accomplished and less to do with the medium” (Huett, Moller, Foshay, & Coleman, 2008, p. 63). The quality of the course is so important to ensure that learning occurs. We have such technologically driven lives in most urban and suburban places in the United States sometimes we forget there are places do not have access to the modern conveniences of life (yes, even in places in our own country). While we must embrace the changes and use of technology and all it entails, we cannot forget the beginnings of distance learning and how important it can be to some people in the world.

As to creating distance education opportunities using technology, we must be careful that we are not simply creating a self-study course where there is no give-and-take between the teacher and the students. We must ensure that our students have an opportunity to collaborate with others and receive feedback from a teacher. More learning will take place if students and teachers work together to learn than if students are left to their own devices, as my father was in his correspondence course. As stated by Moller (1998), “Logically, meaningful learning is more likely to occur when learners have access to a supportive community that encourages knowledge building and social reinforcement” (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008, p. 74).

The other point to think about IS the actual use of technology. “The challenge for ID professionals is not only to evolve the field, but also to assure that the products of sound professional design practice lead the e-learning enterprise” (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008, p. 70). Which technology is appropriate? Should all technologies be used in every situation? How do we create a positive learning environment that is easily navigated by our students? With the growing plethora of web sites, applications, and plug ins, which ones will truly work in an educational setting? Which ones are “for show” only? We need to make sure the technologies utilized are relevant to our objectives of learning and our students. We can all be mesmerized by the “shiny baubles” of technology, but some are just not worth the time and effort of learning or passing along to our students.

In summary, ” … the future is actually quite positive: We just need to choose to view e-learning as the question rather than the answer” (Huett, Moller, Foshay, & Coleman, 2008, p. 66). We, as instructional designers (or future instructional designers), need to constantly be aware of changes in technologies, theories, and methods that are available. Carefully choosing magazines, blogs, web sites and other sources of information to keep as up to date as possible in our ever changing world is necessary. We cannot become complacent with what we think we know; we must be striving for what we need to know. Putting our students first, understing our audience for learning, must be kept first in our planning of any educational setting. This e-learning world is opening up and has so many positive aspects; it is up to us to keep it moving forward and establish a professional standard to be followed.

distance learning mindmapResources

Cross, J. (2003, November 9). Design [Blog post]. Retrieved from Internet Time website:

Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Coleman, C. (2008, September/October). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web part 3. TechTrends, 52(5), 63-67.

Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Huett, J. (2008, July/August). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web part 1. TechTrends, 52(4), 66-70.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (Fifth ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

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